"I Like Your Tits!" is Not a Compliment: A Guide For Men

My raging feminism combined with almost-daily experience of street harassment leads me to think about the problem perhaps more frequently and more in-depth than most people would care to, but my interest lately is not so much in the harassment itself, but in the way we think about and discuss it. You'd be hard-pressed to find a woman in the United States who has never experienced catcalls, leers, and the occasional outright hostility of entitled men who believe it is their right to evaluate women's bodies and then demand attention from them. When you speak about street harassment to a group of women, there is always disgusted eye-rolling, groans of recognition, and a general understanding that being harassed on the street is both unpleasant and scary. Women who have experienced it have respect and sympathy for the horror stories of female friends, because even those of us who haven't experienced the more extreme forms of harassment can still imagine the more benign encounters escalating to that level.

Men, on the other hand, are a different story. Perhaps it's that they don't experience it themselves, or that it almost never happens to their female friends when they are along, but men rarely seem to recognize the seriousness or the ubiquity of street harassment. If you speak about street harassment to a group of men, while most of them will shake their heads in disapproval, it's not at all unusual to get somebody asking what you were wearing, or suggesting that you don't know how to take a "compliment." They honestly don't understand what's so upsetting about a few little catcalls, and it's a hard thing to explain to someone who hasn't experienced it.

The old "put yourself in another person's position" mental exercise is usually a good one for triggering empathy and compassion in another, but when you suggest men imagine what it would be like for them to be sexually harassed on the street, many of them respond with, "I'd love it if women were hitting on me all the time!" I couldn't figure out why so many men would see it as a positive thing when it's generally such a negative experience for women, until one day it hit me: men are imagining being catcalled by women, and the sexual politics of our culture dictate that such an encounter is going to be experienced differently by the harassee depending on the gender of the harasser. So, men, let's try this a different way:

Imagine you are on your way to work, dressed as you always dress for work, minding your own business. As you wait at the bus stop, another man says to you with a vaguely malicious tone, "Nice ass!" You are startled and look at him in shock; he is clearly larger and stronger than you are, so you don't feel safe to express the rage that is beginning to boil inside your sternum. You keep quiet all the way to work, where you finally tell your coworker Joe about your experience. Joe shrugs and says, "Well, you do have a nice ass; if you're going to wear pants that flatter it you're just going to have to expect some comments. I'm sure he was just trying to compliment you anyway." In just two sentences, he has dismissed your experience, invalidated your feelings, and suggested that you were asking for it by dressing the way you dressed.

Okay, I realize that the odds of the above scenario actually happening to a heterosexual man in this country are about eleventy-bajillion to one, but that's sort of the point. The mental exercise doesn't work if you're imagining being ogled by a woman, because women are not accorded the same social status as men, and also are not usually physically threatening. So while it's possible to imagine a strange woman making a sexual comment to you, the element of physical danger will almost certainly be absent, because how many women are bigger or stronger than the average man? Also, some cultural ideas of masculinity are tied to aggressiveness and dominance, and this is something that can escalate harassment when the person being harassed does not respond in the manner desired by the harasser. If a woman commented on your ass and you got mad at her, she probably won't feel like you just threatened her femininity, while a man who comments on a woman's ass may fly into a rage when his comments are not received well, because he feels that the woman has emasculated him by rebuffing his advances. Men, you may not personally harass women, but let me assure you, a lot of other men do, and a lot of them also take it personally when we don't enthusiastically give them our numbers after they have loudly shouted their approval of our tits.

A good portion of the confusion of the decent dudes stems from the fact that many of them don't seem to understand the difference between a compliment and harassment. It may seem like a fine line, but honestly, this stuff isn't that hard to figure out if you follow three simple guidelines.

First: complimenting a stranger is almost always creepy. You have to be very friendly and benign to pull it off, and frequently it's still going to come off creepy because underlying a compliment is the implication that the complimented person ought to care what you think. The true power of a compliment lies not in the words themselves, but in the relationship between the two people. This is why a comment like "Wow, those jeans make your ass look fantastic!" will please me when it comes from my husband, but disgust me when uttered by a stranger. I care what my husband thinks of me; I couldn't give a shit less about whether a stranger approves of my jeans and would frankly rather not think about the fact that a stranger is noticing my ass in the first place.

Second: be appropriate. If you're trying to ingratiate yourself to someone in whom you are romantically interested, limit the compliments to non-sexual things like her eyes or her smile. Do NOT, unless you are already in a sexual relationship with her and know her comfort level with such comments, compliment her tits, ass, or any other culturally sexualized physical feature. If you're complimenting someone in whom you're not romantically interested, it's best not to comment on any physical features at all.

Third: own your words. If she expresses discomfort with what you've said, apologize immediately and sincerely. Don't get angry if your compliment is not received in the manner you expected. You cannot dictate a person's reaction and a compliment in many ways is a verbal step inside someone's personal space, so if she requests that you step the fuck back, you must accept that you have violated her comfort zone and this is your fault, not hers.

I hope that someday street harassment will be a thing of the past, but I'm not holding my breath. We women can only repeat our stories so many times before we start to get tired of being second guessed and dismissed and blamed for the actions of men who are convinced they've done nothing wrong by perpetrating what feels to us like a mental and emotional violation (which sometimes turns into physical violence too). I think one of the best things individual men can do is stop tolerating such behavior from their friends. It's not good enough that you don't do it yourself; you need to speak up when your friends treat strangers poorly, and begin to untangle the web of dominance that has become so closely tied to male/female relationships.

I know it's a cliche, but come on: if we'd all just treat each other with respect and see each other as people, we wouldn't be having this problem!

Posted byMJ at 12:55 PM  

5 comments:

heidikins said... 8/21/2007 11:53 AM  

Agreed to all of the above. Thank you.

xox

Sarah said... 9/28/2007 9:04 PM  

I've always had this urge to get together a group of girls and drive around shouting "Nice butt!" at guys that we've never seen before, but I've known that their reaction would be nothing like mine is. I jump out of my skin everytime someone says something like that to me when I'm on the street. It happened just two days ago. My guy friends, including my boyfriend, don't seem to get it when I try to explain how frightening it can be when you're minding your own business and someone at a stoplight says "hey pretty girl" at you. Note the use of the word 'at', not 'to'. They're not speaking to me. They have no interest in who I am. They're just interested in my butt, or whatever. This mostly happens when I'm in gym clothes, and I don't wear spandex or run around with just a bra--I'm in shorts and a t-shirt, and certainly am not looking my best, and when men do that, I feel like an object--not a human being. Sorry to make this so long, but this has been a problem since I hit puberty, and few people have explained it as well as you did. I'm going to get my boyfriend to read this, and a number of the girls that I know as well. It's like girls walking alone or with other girls are mysteriously 'available' for taking on the street--even at 9:30 in the morning on a sunny college campus going to the gym. Sigh.

Anonymous said... 4/01/2010 3:45 AM  

I typed into google: "Why do women hate comments on their breasts."

After wading through a bunch of bullshit from little girls and boys on Yahoo! Answers I came across this article. It is probably the only answer that makes sense.

If a person bigger than me says something like that, it probably feels uncomfortable. Of course, we are assuming it is done in the way that a lot of street-harrassers do it. (e.g, "heeey baby" or something)

Question: How can a man compliment breasts without being misconstrued as a street harasser.

Anonymous said... 4/01/2010 8:58 AM  

Unless you're in a romantic relationship with the breast-owner in question, you probably can't and shouldn't.

Anonymous said... 11/18/2010 8:24 PM  

Anonymous...why are you worried about being able to compliment breasts in the first place? That is not your place. Mentioning a person's breasts is street harassment no matter what manner it is worded. She doesn't need to hear your approval of her physical manifestation.

How about regarding women as fellow humans. Do you "compliment" fellow men on the street? On their ass?

Things to consider.

Post a Comment